An end to desertification

Most parts of Sri Lanka have just emerged out of a long drought, which was followed by a massive flood. However, there are several areas which have still not received a substantial amount of rain. Some areas of the country are so parched that they could turn out to be deserts a few decades, if not years, down the road.

Drought is in fact one of the biggest causes of desertification (dictionary definition: the degradation of land in arid, semi-arid and dry sub-humid areas) worldwide, but it is not the only one. Desertification is caused primarily by human activities and climatic variations. (Desertification does not refer to the expansion of existing deserts per se, though that is also happening).

Desertification is not a new phenomenon. There is new evidence to suggest that man’s actions may have given birth to deserts such as the Sahara.

The desertification of the Sahara, which began 10,000 years ago, may have been at least partially caused by humans, according to a new study. Most studies suggest the formation of the Sahara Desert, the world’s largest hot desert, was brought about by changes in regional vegetation patterns and a shift in Earth’s orbit. But some scientists now argue human activities may have encouraged the Sahara’s formation.

Desertification occurred because dry land ecosystems, which cover over one third of the world’s land area, are extremely vulnerable to over exploitation and inappropriate land use.

There are many direct and indirect causes that lead to desertification, such as poverty, political instability, deforestation, overgrazing and bad irrigation practices.

A little more than 24 percent of the Earth’s surface is made up of desertified lands.

According to the United Nations, over 250 million people are directly affected by desertification, and about one billion people in over one hundred countries are at risk. These people include many of the world‘s poorest, most marginalized and politically voiceless citizens.

The World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought which fell yesterday (June 17) is observed every year to promote public awareness of international efforts to combat desertification.

This year’s theme is “Land degradation and migration” which examines the important link between land degradation and migration. Among others, environmental degradation, food insecurity and poverty are causes of migration and development challenges.

This day should remind everyone of land’s important role in producing food and generating local employment, as well as its ability to add to the sustainability, stability and security of desertification-affected places.

This year’s key events are being held at Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, organized by the Ministry of Environment, Green Economy and Climate Change. (Incidentally, Burkina Faso is one of the few countries having a separate Climate Change Ministry).

Migration poses a big challenge to host countries, many of which are poor themselves, because they have to feed additional mouths using the same extent of arable land. In just 15 years, the number of international migrants worldwide has risen from 173 million in 2000 to 244 million in 2015.

The UN has taken the issue of land degradation into account in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) program. “We are determined to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations,” the UN says. Specifically, SDG Goal Number 15 states the world’s resolve to halt and reverse land degradation.

Another alarming consequence of land degradation is water scarcity. By 2025, 1.8 billion people will experience absolute water scarcity, and two thirds of the world will be living under water-stressed conditions. Experts fear that the advancing drought and deserts, growing water scarcity and decreasing food security may provoke a huge ‘tsunami” of climate refugees and migrants.

This is why a major United Nations Convention calls drought ‘one of the “four horsemen of the apocalypse.’ The statistics are really alarming - 12 million hectares of productive land become barren every year due to desertification and drought alone, which is a lost opportunity to produce 20 million tons of grain.

This cannot go on, when the world is expected to increase food production by 70 per cent by 2050 to feed the entire world population which will reach nine billion by that year. Sustainable intensification of food production that avoids further deforestation should be a priority for action for policy makers worldwide.

Desertification is sometimes irreversible and sometimes reversible, depending on one’s location. Reforestation is often the best answer.

A recent report from Mongolia published in China’s Global Times says Inner Mongolian farmers who planted trees in the arid area for 20 years are now seeing the retreating desert. There is a grand plan to plant trees from Senegal to Djibouti to halt desertification in its tracks.

The Great Green Wall would be a nine-mile wide band of trees and shrubbery across the southern border of Sahara’s southern Sahel desert, stretching 4,400 miles through 11 countries from the Senegalese capital of Dakar in the west to Djibouti on the Indian Ocean coast.

Elvis Paul Tangam, the African Union Commissioner in charge of the plan, says 15 per cent of the trees were planted already, largely in Senegal and Burkina Faso. Senegal has reclaimed more than four million hectares of land along the Great Green Wall.

In 1978, the Chinese government implemented the Three-North Shelterbelt Project, a national ecological engineering effort that called for the planting of millions of trees along the 2,800-mile border of northern China’s encroaching desert, while increasing the world’s forest by 10 percent. Also known as the “Great Green Wall,” the project’s end date isn’t until 2050; so far, more than 66 billion trees have been planted.

Such international cooperation and national-level action is vital to see an end to further desertification. Most countries have already ratified the UN Convention to Combat Desertification and are taking steps to prevent further erosion of land.

Sri Lanka too has an ambitious tree planting and reforestation campaign that should put a halt to any chances of desertification. It is essential to prevent desertification everywhere if we do not want to face a rather bleak future.  


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